Saturday, July 31, 2010

The Witcher: What's the big deal?

So having played a bit of The Witcher after purchasing it on Steam a while ago, I'm struggling to see what all the fuss is about. I've read numerous arguments that The Witcher is better than Dragon Age, and how it's much more dark, mature and gritty, with better choices, and more besides. Maybe I'm not far enough into the game, but I'm afraid I'm really not seeing it. Admittedly, I'm only part way through Chapter 1, but I have to confess that playing the game is a real struggle. That's not just because of the fairly annoying and boring combat. There are some fairly other key design factors that annoy me.

The "maturity" of the game is one thing that proponents of The Witcher constantly push. This aspect is something that I really can't agree with, as The Witcher is only mature if you interpret maturity in the crudest possible sense. Having characters swear frequently using what are considered the most offensive profanities in English is not mature, it's just a cheap shot to provide a shock attraction. I think the people who declare the swearing a demonstration of the game's maturity don't understand how artificial and incongruous it is to have someone drop obscenities over trivial matters. I'm not against swearing in games, but if the emotional investment of a character doesn't match their language, I consider it nothing more than a pathetic attempt to convince people that the game is mature. It's not merely bad acting, it's bad writing, and the game seems juvenile as a result. As for the "sex cards" you get from "romancing" the various females in the game, well, the less said the better. Adding gratuituous and meaningless sex is worse than swearing. (I could continue, but I don't want the whole post to turn into a complain about this subject)

Apparently this represents maturity in gaming

There's also the issue of choice. Now, maybe this is a result of not having played enough of the game, but I haven't really felt that challenged by the choices so far, nor felt that they particularly mattered that much. Maybe as I progress further into the game, I'll see delayed effects of those decisions. I've been told that does happen in The Witcher, which might go some way towards fixing that problem. Perhaps I'm being a little harsh here, as I like the idea of being forced to pick between two choices where neither seems to be better than the other, and The Witcher does seem to do that. However, it just feels that the presentation of these decisions is lacking, as it's not like Alpha Protocol where I actually cared about the small decisions. I think the issue is that either there doesn't seem to be a whole lot at stake when it comes to making a choice, or I have no personal involvement and am not really invested in the decision as a character.

However, the point where I really have to take issue with the game is its dialogue, because it really is ordinary. Yes, I understand that the game's developers are not native English speakers, but The Witcher really struggles in this department. I'll say upfront that I don't like Geralt's personality, but the whole issue of having a pre-set character is not something that particularly bothers me in a game - I can deal with it provided that I have some control over them. However... in The Witcher, I don't. Many conversations are lengthy cutscenes, where it is Geralt and an NPC (or NPCs) talking back and forth without any interaction from me. Having a conversation of a half a dozen to a dozen lines without any input from me simply because I clicked on an NPC is not something I appreciate. Take this example of a dwarven blacksmith. Geralt and he exchange greetings, then have an extended chat about the hatred for non-humans, leaving me to watch while Geralt does the talking.

A cutscene... err, I mean conversation, from the game

When you do actually get to control the conversation, you have fairly limited conversation options at your disposal, and the characters seem to just spout exposition at you as opposed to engaging in "real" dialogue. Even worse, many conversations will also automatically continue in an exchange like the one described above without additional input beyond your first dialogue choice! This further enforces the reality that you're "watching" the game rather than "playing" it. Finally, there's the issue where I can anger an NPC to the point that they won't talk to me again simply from picking one wrong dialogue choice, and it's not even clear that I am saying something particularly offensive. Feeling I have to save before every conversation just in case I happen to say the wrong thing is a clear indication of a terrible implementation of conversation trees. Again, taking the example of the dwarf above, it's possible for me to ask him if he trades with these people he mentions. Suddenly he swears at me (there's that "maturity" again) and then refuses to talk to me at all.

*beep* Wrong answer! One permanently annoyed NPC coming up.

Regardless, I'll still attempt to persevere with The Witcher. I just can't see how it is getting so much praise for being such a great game when all I'm seeing is a mostly stale experience. A stale experience in a potentially interesting setting, mind you, it's just that the game doesn't seem to deliver anything to do justice to what appears to be a well-developed world.


  1. I also have no idea how the game can be considered great by any stretch. The one thing that kept me playing though was the setting which I thought was wonderfully realized. I loved that it felt rather "folklore-ish", sort of down to earth and where the people really struggle through each day. That and Vizima (the main town, which you get to in act 2 if I remember correctly) is probably the best realized town I've seen in a 3d RPG so far.

    But the gameplay, while having some nice things (I love how important alchemy can be), is quite bad, full of down-time and filler. And the writing is quite awful most of the time, the story really suffers as a result. Some of the choices are nice but not nearly enough to carry the game.

  2. It's funny how much swearing there is in the english version of the Witcher, because I watched a design video (with english subtitles) where the writers said something about "not wanting to be vulgar for the sake of vulgarity." Someone forgot to tell the english translators...

    I'm not all that thrilled about the original Witcher game either. (The one translated novel I read was good, Geralt has a personality! Imagine that!) I never finished the endgame of chapter 2, and the journal tells me there's 6-7 chapters.

    The idea of choices that make a difference has a few good points in the Witcher, but you wouldn't ever expect the consequences (which can be a good thing.) You might allow someone to take their cargo from a dock just to find out an important character got killed because of that. Needless to say, hilarity ensued when I first found out...

    Of course, not all the "gray morality" in the Witcher is gray. The final major choice in chapter 1 involves helping obvious lunatics versus an obvious innocent that Geralt may have slept with. I think this is made up for in chapter 2 with the introduction of the "Order of the Flame" (I think that was the name.)

    The Order has got this whole "defend humanity from monsters" thing going, but classifies nonhumans as monsters. Then we have the Squirrels, who fight for nonhuman rights using terrorist tactics. In the end, I'm told you have to side with one group or stay neutral. Thing is, neither group is completely good or evil. A plus for the Witcher.

    I must also say that I'm disappointed by interaction with NPCs. Mass Effect 2 did a great job of allowing the player to choose Shepard's lines but forcing default lines in certain situations, but Geralt sure is talkative for someone who has nothing to say. When I meet a guy that lives, eats, and sleeps indoors is commenting on the weather with Geralt, you know the conversation was sidetracked.

    There's more. Geralt's voice acting isn't all that great. He somehow manages a monotone even when he is slapped in the face with a plot twist (in chapter 2.) The man doesn't flinch ever, as seen with his straight face in every single scene. Which is apparently attractive to peasants...

    Worst scene in the game (that I saw:) talk to some peasant, give her some plot item flower I found, sex card. 'Nuff said.

    I'm not sure which dwaf blacksmith you're talking about, AH, but there is one in chapter 1 that caused me needless frustration. He mentions the "squirrels" (don't remember the elvish name) and says they're terrorists. I ask if he does business with them. The guy curses at me and ignores me for the rest of the in-game day. Thank God some bug or contingency programming allowed the dwarf to calm down after a day...

    Overall, the Witcher seems to be an okay game. I just don't see much to rave about except the setting. I pray to God that Geralt has emotions in the upcoming sequel...

  3. I just played the witcher cuz i heard of it being an rpg. I tried it, for some reason I liked the difference, but I guess the fact that it is foreign explains why everyones personality was so weird and incosistent. All I can say is the ending chapter is awesome. The very end where you fight the boss explains what all the hoopla is about and lets just say its a very original post appocalyptic view of the world.

  4. From Wizard of thay
    the only thing I can say about this game is that I played but can't remember if i finished it...
    I think I did.
    is there anyworse condemnation than it not making any real impression...
    oh I liked the first mission, but after that. no real memory.

  5. Yup.
    I see you found out some issue I didn't see in the Witcher at the first time.
    (I'm a fan of Geralt :))
    And I want to share my point of view on two elements.

    1) Delayed consequence:
    The choice made in Witcher have a nice element. Their effect is delayed from the moment of the choice. So you can't choose the result and load back the game to take your favourite. You have to choose without knowing the consequence (this was the first time for me, but I don't know if there're other games with the same element).
    And this make the choice deeper, more relevant.

    2) One-track story and choices.
    You can choose to take side with a faction or another, and the player feels to have a choice, then the story continues on the track.
    I think it is a good option. Giving the player the feel of the choice is good, but implementing more sidetrack stories could be wrong sometimes.
    The important is the experience of the player and the feel of the choice. If we can give it without spreading too many branches it will be a good result.
    Maybe you think Witcher didn't succeeded in this, but the goal behind is a good point. They try it.

    PS: The dwarf who became angry remains angry only for a day, and I'm pretty sure they decided voluntarly to make it so.

  6. Still a lot of posts to read through but this one about the Witcher caught my attention. Referencing one of the previous posts you've made about choices in an RPG, The Witcher offers choices that really affect the game. It is not immediately visible but it will be as you progress through the chapters. What's more important is that these choices not only affect the main storyline but also how one or two side-quests can be completed.
    Compared with Dragon Age where the choice impact is extremely short-term and some of the choices don't affect the game in a logical manner (blood magic and Wynne is a glaring example), The Witcher definitely is better in that department.

    While I agree that the swearing was over-done and you don't have control over most of the conversations, I understand why this was done. Implementing more choices would have diluted the game in my opinion.

    I am not saying it is the best RPG around but it delivered what it set out to in the best manner possible.

  7. Did you play the Enchanced Edition? My Dwarven God, it was an overall awesome achievement. A great gameworld, the alchemy, interesting boss monsters. And I enjoyed the choices the player was presented with. I particularly loved the overall theme of this Neutral monster slaying questioning what his role was in a rapidly changing world.

    Dragon Age, on the other hand, is the most tiresome banal chore to play through, with companions that grate on my nerves like pushing a soprano cat through piano wire. I can't understand where its accolades come from. The combat sucks. The graphics sub-par. It's codex is a painful bore (I too would read everything, HOPING without success to find a single interesting entry.) It's world is very generic fantasy. Uggh! It's bland gaming.

    Now that DA2 will be UNLIKELY to have a toolset ("we're looking into updating the first toolset" doesn't count for much) I'll be keeping an eye on Witcher 2.

    The difference is I would buy Witcher 2 even without a toolset - just to play, but I would never buy Dragon Age 2 without the toolset. I can't support a company dedicated to making games for beaten monkeys.

  8. The dwarven blacksmith gets pissed because you ask him if he trades with what are considered criminals.

    That's like if I went into a gun shop and said, "Hey man, do you sell guns to people who need them for murder?"

    And it's programmed into the game for the npcs that get pissed at you to cease being pissed after a short time... I guess a day.

    And the Witcher having emotions? I thought the point was he was tough and steel and didn't show any emotion... he's supposed to be kind of like Clint Eastwood.

  9. I've played the game more since this post, and I even made another complaint talking about other faults in the game as well. The thing is that there are some things that the game does right. I don't deny that. It's just that they are so few and far between, and overshadowed by some of the worst design decisions I've experienced while playing games, let alone RPGs.

    One day I'll finish it and give a full and complete opinion of the game and list all the things that were good and bad about it. Based on my experiences so far, the second list is going to be so much longer.